Into the Linguistic Rabbit Hole
I’m nine or ten years old, sitting at our dining room table when I put down my fork, look up at my dad, and ask: «Γιατί η καρέκλα λέγεται καρέκλα και όχι τραπέζι;» “Why is a chair called a chair and not a table?” This will not be the first, or last, time I’ll see an adult with an expression of utter befuddlement or hear the response, “How the fuck would I know? Finish your vegetables.”
I’m a writer and translator. I grew up bilingual. Maybe it’s not such a shocker that I’m fascinated by language and languages, or that the rabbit holes I’m most likely to dive into are linguistic and etymological.
Grammatical gender is an odd thing for many English speakers. It makes sense that you’ll use he when talking about a stallion or a rooster and she when talking about a mare or a chicken. But what about a bridge? A key? A chair? The days of the week? Yes, even days have gender in other parts of the world. In Greek, the days, Δευτέρα, Τρίτη, κτλ., are feminine. In Spanish, lunes, martes, etc., or French, lundi, mardi, etc., they’re masculine. The Russians mix it up. Mondays, понедельник, are masculine; Fridays, пятница, are feminine; Sundays, воскресенье, are neuter.
For native speakers of languages with grammatical gender, there are studies that show their perception of inanimate objects is affected by the gender of those objects. The authors of Sex, Syntax and Semantics note that when groups of German and Spanish speakers were asked to provide adjectives to describe “keys,” German speakers (where key, schlüssel, is a masculine noun) used words like “hard, heavy, jagged, metal, and useful.” Spanish speakers (where key, llave, is a feminine noun) used words such as “golden, intricate, little, lovely, and tiny.” Bridge is masculine (puente) in Spanish and feminine (brücke) in German. “German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, strong, sturdy, and towering.”
I wonder, could the opposite be true? Could sitting in a chair in a different country affect my own gender by acquiring the gender of the chair itself? In Greek, καρέκλα is feminine. In Russian, стул is masculine. In Romanian, scaun is neuter. In English, chairs don’t have gender. Could I be she in Greece, he in Russia, it/they in Romania, and genderless in England? Wouldn’t that be the gender-fluid dream?
As I meditated on gender, I grew a curiosity for language as a whole. Idiomatic expressions are their own linguistic rabbit hole. You can say, “it’s pouring buckets” when you find yourself out in the street without an umbrella, but it’s definitely more interesting to say: “it’s raining cats and dogs.” In case you’re wondering, (I definitely was) other countries also have canine downpours. In German, it rains puppies (es regnet junge hunde). That’s cute or horrifying, depending on your perspective, but I don’t think PETA would approve. In Haiti, dogs are drinking in their noses (chyen ap bwe nan nen), which doesn’t sound very pleasant, but at least it’s not my nose. In Cantonese, the canine theme becomes even less pleasant because now dog poop is falling (落狗屎 lohk gáusí). Other places move away from the canines but stay in the Mammal class, although we have definitely lost the cuteness factor. In France, it’s raining like a pissing cow (Il pleut comme vache qui pisse). In Colombia, it’s even raining husbands (estan lloviendo hasta maridos). In Dutch, it rains old hags (het regent oude wijven), and in Norwegian, it’s raining female trolls (det regner trollkjerringer). Moving to marine mammals, in Scottish Gaelic, it’s giving milk to the whales (tha e a’ toirt bainne dha na mucan-mara), while in Faroese, it’s raining pilot whales (tað regnar av grind). Yikes! I think it’s clear that a standard umbrella will not be of much help, so don’t feel bad if you forgot it.
It’s now well past midnight, and my cats are wondering why I’m not in bed yet, but how can I contemplate sleeping without first figuring out where “yikes” comes from? A quick click on my Etymology browser extension and I learn that it may come “from yoicks, a call in fox-hunting, attested from c. 1770.” At least we’ve stayed with the mammalian motif, but PETA definitely won’t be ok with this either.
My cat has moved to my lap, so going to bed is no longer an option (have you ever tried to move a cat when she’s comfortable?) I also feel like I have my second wind. Hmm, where does that expression come from? My trusty etymology extension comes to the rescue again. Wind apparently meant breath in Old English (the language, not the furniture polish) “hence second wind in the figurative sense (by 1830), an image from the sport of hunting.” Hunting again? Not from the exercise phenomenon? (word of caution: unless words like phosphagen system and oxidative phosphorylation turn you on, you may want to skip that last link). This reference requires an even deeper rabbit hole, this time into university archives of Early English books. After some time and lots of virtual dust (those books are old), I can confirm that it seems like “second wind” came from hunting, specifically from the second blow (breath, wind) into a hunting horn.
Ok, with my cat off my lap for a minute, it’s definitely time to shut down the computer now. Have I accomplished anything here besides sleep deprivation? Accomplish, from Old French acomplir ‘to fulfill, fill up, complete’. I am fulfilled and filled up, so, once again, etymology saves the little bit left of the night. Όνειρα γλυκά! Sweet dreams!
paparouna writes queer speculative prose, translates Greek literature into English, and daydreams about life as a marine mammal. An MFA Candidate in Fiction and Translation at Antioch University Los Angeles, paparouna is also a graduate of the 2018 Princeton Hellenic Translation Workshop and the 2018-2020 Lighthouse Book Project. They’re the Lead Editor in Translation for Antioch’s literary journal, Lunch Ticket, and have been published in Progenitor, Asymptote, Exchanges, New Poetry in Translation, Denver Quarterly, Timber, and The Thought Erotic.